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Summer -- with its intrinsic air of freedom and relaxation -- is especially well-suited for taking the trip your family has been dreaming of since the height of winter. This is one of the only times of year conducive to family travel, and there's a lot of pressure to spend your time wisely. But it can be tough to choose a destination that will please everyone, and it's even more difficult when you have to consider factors like weather, affordability and overall atmosphere.
First, recognize the settings in which your family thrives. Is your family full of beach bums who love the serenity of a Caribbean vacation? Are you itching for some hiking and adventure in a national park? Do bustling cities keep everyone entertained? Next, consider your clan's ideal ratio of these environments, narrow your vacation scope and make your ultimate decision using U.S. News' 2014 summer and family vacation rankings.
We create our Best Summer and Best Family rankings by selecting destinations that meet certain criteria and come highly recommended by travel experts around the Web. The lists are then ordered based on feedback from our readers. In analyzing our readers' opinions for this year's lists, we found that an abundance of activities and beautiful scenery are two key factors that dictate where a family decides to vacation.
Honolulu - Oahu and Yellowstone held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, on our 2014 Best Family Summer Vacations ranking list. These two destinations boast very different settings, but they both offer a balanced combination of the great outdoors and kid-friendly pastimes. Honolulu -- which received an 83 percent traveler approval rating and rose from its third-place rank in 2013 -- has a bevy of family-approved resorts and beaches (especially in Waikiki). Yellowstone, on the other hand, offers unique geologic features to excite travelers of all ages, along with children's activities like the Junior Ranger and Young Scientist programs. Overall, the destinations on our Best Family Summer Vacations list demonstrate the high value placed on atmosphere and activities. Over-the-top Orlando-Walt Disney World and Anaheim-Disneyland earned the third and fourth spots, respectively; the wildlife-packed Galápagos Islands rank fifth; and attraction-filled San Diego ranked sixth.
If you'd like to tackle a different part of the world, U.S. News has you covered there, too. We evaluated destinations around the globe to help you find the best places to take your family in regions such as Canada, Asia and Africa and the Middle East. Those hoping to head south should consider Costa Rica, which captured the top spot on our Best Family Vacations in Central and South America ranking. For a trip across the pond, Rome takes the No. 1 position on our Best Family Vacations in Europe list. Dreaming of visiting Australia and the Pacific? Sydney received the most votes, but the Great Barrier Reef offers some stiff competition, claiming the No. 2 spot with a 97 percent approval rating among travelers. (That's this year's highest approval rating for any destination on our summer and family rankings.)
The draws of a foreign destination are hard to deny, but between passports and customs it's often easier to travel within United States borders -- especially if you have lots of little ones in tow. The good news is: The U.S. is packed with exciting, wide-ranging locales for families. One of the most popular destinations in the country, Orlando-Walt Disney World takes the cake on our Best Family Vacations in the USA ranking. But the list isn't limited to theme parks. Diverse destinations like Washington, D.C., San Diego and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, held tight to their respective fifth, sixth and seventh ranks from last year. The rolling hills and mild weather of San Francisco helped the city jump up from No. 12 last year to the No. 9 spot this year.
Still, for many family travelers, summer means sun, sand and surf. If your brood is set on the ease of a beach destination -- complete with family-oriented resorts, tons of activities and unbeatable scenery -- refer to our rankings of the Best Family Beach Vacations in the USA and the Best Family Vacations in the Caribbean. Atop our U.S. list is a beach locale that you and your family may not have considered: North Carolina's Outer Banks. Lodging here mostly comes in the form of rental properties, which are perfect for accommodating your whole crew.
As for the Caribbean, the Bahamas reigned supreme among family vacations. It's also worth considering the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, which round out the rest of the Caribbean's top three destinations. Meanwhile, the Cayman Islands snagged the No. 1 spot on the list of the Best Beaches in the World, while the British Virgin Islands took top billing on the list of the Most Relaxing Beaches.
Big families often find vacationing cost prohibitive, but it doesn't have to be. National parks -- with campground accommodations, low admission costs and free transportation services -- dominated the top spots on our list of Best Affordable Family Vacations. The Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone took the top three spots on this ranking with an average 82 percent traveler approval rating. For extra guidance on destinations that will get you the best bang for your buck -- no matter who's coming along for the ride -- check out our Best Cheap Summer Vacations ranking.
Where is your favorite family vacation spot? Tell us in the comments below, and cast your vote on our rankings lists -- your selections will help us determine next year's ranking. For more ideas and inspiration, check out U.S. News' other vacation rankings.
-- Allison Michaels